I had a terrific affirming conversation the other day after I ran into a fellow bassoon student at Eastman. He asked me, "How do I get started finding gigs & get myself out there?" We spent well over 45 minutes on a street corner discussing possibilities and I found myself rattling off a number of actionable ideas and lessons I've learned while launching my freelance career. Of course, I was thrilled to be asked for help by a colleague, but it felt even better that I had a toolkit full of options and ideas to offer. I decided to reconstitute some of the processes and ideas I've used in the past and offer them for consideration.
Online Presence - Whether you have a website or are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.being online is crucial to launching a career in music. Today, social media is not just for personal expression - it is essential for showcasing your professional career! It would be rare to receive a blind message from a conductor or ensemble on social medial (those usually come via phone or email) however, social media makes it so easy to find and connect with fellow musicians and it's here that connections happen.
Special Note: When you use social media for business purposes, be very aware of your postings.
Research Locally - Discover what ensembles, festivals and concerts occur in your area and become well-versed in what may be coming up on the calendar.
Look for Services that may assist with connecting musicians to the community. For instance, Eastman has a "Gig Service"; an online bulletin board for musicians (Find Gigs & Hire Musicians). Often these services are geared towards small ensembles (string quartets, jazz trios, etc.) looking for wedding, party or holiday gigs. You will not likely find "sub" positions here.
Show Your Interest - If you know people in your field that are currently gigging, talk to them; ask then for advice about the area, which jobs to take and who's looking for people. Not only will you be learning more about your community environment, you will be showing colleagues that you are interested in gigging. When people know you are actively looking for work, they are far more likely to call or recommend you for gigs when they are unable. The bassoonist who stopped to talk to me is now on my referral list!
Respond Quickly - Even if your response is a simple "Thank you, but I am unavailable," always respond to every message and do it in a timely fashion. Sometimes ensembles are in a pinch looking for subs and they will be incredibly grateful for a quick reply. If you wait or do not reply at all, they probably won't contact you again.
Take the Gig - In the beginning of a freelance career, no matter how small, obscure, paid or unpaid, TAKE IT! Obviously, you need to be aware of the time commitment, costs (travel, gas, tolls...) and don't want to repeatedly put yourself into the hole, but always seriously consider taking the gig. Honestly, you NEVER know where it might lead or WHO you might meet!! Play it smart: if you physically can't do it, say no, but if you are on the fence, go for it!
Play Your Best - Yes, sometimes gigs can be strange, difficult, or even ungratifying. It comes with the territory. However, no matter who you are playing with, the level of difficulty of the piece, or even if you can/can not be "heard", play your best. Your attitude towards the gig, and your fellow musicians, MATTERS! A good attitude will take you far.
Thank Them! - At the end of the performance, whether in person or via email (or both!), thank the conductor, personnel manager, fellow musician or whomever it is who got you the gig. That last little step will make a world of difference. Even if you CAN'T take the gig, thank them for the opportunity in your response. Positivity goes a long, long way!
Unionize - Depending on who you talk to, opinions about unions vary greatly. Some folks are "for" unions and others, well, not so much. However, a handful of groups in your area will be a part of the union, which means you can not play with them unless you are a part of it too. So just register and get it done as soon as possible and save yourself a last minute run around when you receive an emergency call by a union shop. If you join the union as a student, it is actually quite affordable. If you choose not to join, that is fine too, just know that this will limit your ability in some locations.
My final tip is actually something I learned from the fantastic and applicable book Lessons from a Streetwise Musician by Ramon Ricker. Amoung his detailed notes on how to be a successful freelancer is the recommendation "to be what contractors are looking for." He goes on to specify;
"Someone Who is Available - Contractors and leaders make lots of phone calls and send lots of emails....They want to get the gig booked as quickly as possible, and so if individuals continually turn them down, they will eventually be passed over (p. 219)."
"Someone Who is Loyal (They Will be Loyal in Return) - In the freelance world, loyal people are those who value the work that a contractor offers and do everything possible to make themselves available. Not every gig a contractor gets will be good...But sometimes you have to say yes to one of these 'bad gigs' just to stay in the good graces of the contractor. That's loyalty (p. 219)."
"Someone Who is Always on Time (If You're on Time, You're Late) - Being punctual is very important in the music business...It is common practice for orchestra to levy fines on tardy musicians, and the amount for each infraction is written into the master agreement...The master agreement will also more than likely stipulate that the musicians must be in their seats five minutes prior to the start of the service. As a group, orchestra musicians are very time concious (p. 220)."
"Someone Who Makes Them Look Good - Contractors are responsible...for the quality of the music that the musicians produce. If a particular person is having trouble with a passage and the conductor is giving them a hard time, we feel it too. When the players sound good, the contractor looks good, and that translates into repeat work (p. 220-1)."
I'm certain there are many, many other thoughts, ideas and options for launching a musician's career, I'd love to hear from you!